Hands-On Review:8 tracks of ultra-friendly digital at a cassette-recorder price
By Reg Hamilton
I had begun to think there was something inherent in the nature of digital recording that prevented a simple, straightforward user interface suitable for your average non-geek musician. But I was wrong. With the MR-8, Fostex has proven digital can be simple, and they’ve produced a fully functional digital recorder that costs less than many analog cassette multitrackers.
Think before you act
Like almost everybody, I was totally jazzed when digital recording technology became available to the home recordist. But pretty much all digital recorders I’ve encountered up till now have required so much hard learning to operate that by the time I get them up and running, my jones to lay down tracks has evaporated. I generally only get involved in recording when I’ve written a new song, and that doesn’t happen every week. So by the time I get back to my complex digital recorder for another song, I’ve forgotten how to run the damn thing. The result is that I grow shy of the recorder altogether.
The MR-8 has put an end to that once and for all. After spending five minutes diddling around with it-with no manual-I had all the basic functions wired. The Fostex engineers put some heavy thought into how to make this thing run just like the cassette multitrackers of yore. I just plugged in, armed the track, hit Play and Record at the same time, and did my stuff. Repeating that four times, I had four tracks of pristine, 16-bit, 44kHz sound.
With the touch of a button you can record tracks 1-4 onto tracks 5 and 6, which are essentially one stereo track controlled with the same fader (and the faders feel fantastic). Load up tracks 1-4 again, then hit another button and mix down tracks 1-6 directly onto tracks 7 and 8, which are also controlled with one slider. There are three very subtly crafted and usable mastering presets that add an amazing polish and presence to your sound. Then with the touch of another button you can turn tracks 7 and 8 into a stereo WAV file ready for export to a computer. Or you can fill up all eight tracks and send them out as audio signal.
On the top panel you’ve got two XLR inputs with impedance trims and two 1/4" unbalanced inputs, one of which doubles as a dedicated guitar input. That is especially cool because there’s built-in analog distortion with a level control right there plus a three-setting amp simulator that really sounds good. I was amazed. There’s even a mic simulator that lets you choose between dynamic, condenser, and tube mic sounds. Of course, the type of mic you use has a huge effect, but these settings add some nice options to match your voice and the song.
There’s a built-in mic so you can record notes to yourself about setting levels and such. I tried singing into it and it actually sounded pretty good, especially with the mic simulation buttons. I took the MR-8 out to the park with nothing but my old Tele and a patch cord, and came back with a decent-sounding demo of a song I’ve been working on-including two guitars, faux bass, and two vocal tracks. Did I mention this thing runs on batteries? Six double-As in the back and it’s a free-roaming machine.
There are two 1/4" outs on the top panel for left and right stereo channels plus two 1/4" headphone outs with a volume control. On the back there’s a footswitch in for punching in and out of tracks, an optical S/PDIF out, a USB out, and a MIDI out on the side. With all these ins and outs, the MR-8 is more connected than Grand Central Station.
The storage medium is one of those tiny little James Bond-looking compact flash cards. It ships with a 128MB card which will hold about 25 track minutes in high-res mode. Or you can settle for a little less resolution (16-bit, 22.05kHz) and get twice that. I found the lower res was perfectly acceptable for the projects I work on at home.
The MR-8 has four different types of reverb/delay-a very usable selection, each available at the touch of its own button. Each of the channel faders has its own effect send and pan knobs. One of the things I really like about this unit is that you can operate it without getting too involved in layers of menus. There are 38 buttons, 13 knobs, and 7 faders on the top panel, each clearly marked as to its function.
When I finally dug into the menus, I found an impressively sophisticated operating system so intuitively designed I could figure most of it out without the manual. There are all the primary functions you expect from a digital recorder-copy, move, paste, and so on-plus a whole raft of things you wouldn’t expect from such an affordable unit. MIDI sync out, chain play mode, signature and tempo maps, bar offset, click level, song libraries, and on and on are available to be used as your grasp of digital recording gets tighter.
In sum, this is a digital recorder that’s had some serious thought put into it. It can be operated almost entirely from the buttons and knobs on the top panel yet offers much deeper sophistication if desired. It runs on batteries (or included power supply) so you can take it anywhere, and it gives you simple yet effective options you’ll actually use. All this for a price I still can’t believe.
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